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Seal of the Governor
For Immediate Release: February 20, 2021
Contacts: Office of the Governor: Alena Yarmosky, Alena.Yarmosky@governor.virginia.gov | Virginia Space: Kim Read, Kim.Read@vaspace.org

Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Successfully Launches Fifteenth Resupply Mission to International Space Station

Spacecraft named for pioneering Black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

RICHMOND—The 15th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station successfully launched today at 12:36 p.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A located on Wallops Island. The mission, designated NG-15, is a partnership of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft launched on the company’s Antares rocket, carrying approximately 8,200 pounds of cargo that included scientific investigations, crew supplies, and hardware. A secondary payload of thirty ThinSats, which are small satellites that carry scientific experiments into space and are capable of transmitting data from low earth orbit, was integrated on the second stage of the Antares as part of a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) student outreach program.

The Cygnus spacecraft has been named in honor of longtime Virginia resident and pioneering Black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and in celebration of Black History Month. Northrop Grumman traditionally names each spacecraft after an individual who has played a pivotal role in the legacy of human spaceflight. Johnson’s hand-written calculations were critical to the success of America’s early human spaceflight missions. She was among the group of Black women mathematicians at NASA who were celebrated in the 2016 film ‘Hidden Figures,’ based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly with the same title. The February 20 launch date also marks the 59th anniversary of the launch of Friendship 7, a mission that made John Glenn the first American astronaut to orbit Earth. Glenn asked Johnson to verify the complex orbital trajectory calculations prior to his flight.

“This important mission honors the legacy of Katherine Johnson, who broke through barriers of gender and race, and whose mathematical skill has been integral to the advancement of human spaceflight,” said Governor Northam. “Her work also paved the way for the delivery of critical equipment and scientific experiments to the International Space Station, like that which is aboard this spacecraft bearing her name. We remain committed to making strategic investments to support the growing aerospace industry in Virginia and help shape the future of space exploration.”

The S.S. Katherine Johnson will arrive at the International Space Station on Monday, February 22, and will remain attached to the space station for approximately three months. NG-15 is the thirteenth successful Antares launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, which serves as the homeport of the Northrop Grumman Antares launch vehicle. The Commonwealth built the $120 million launch pad to accommodate the Antares 230+ rocket configuration and Cygnus spacecraft. 

Once the S.S. Katherine Johnson is deployed to the International Space Station filled with the primary cargo payload, the ThinSats will be released into Extreme Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) from the second stage of the rocket. Students will be able to collect and analyze data relayed from their satellites for approximately five days before they deorbit and burn upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s mission marks the second time Virginia Space has launched ThinSats on a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket—the inaugural launch was on April 17, 2019. First Lady Pamela Northam witnessed the liftoff and participated in a virtual ThinSats team meeting with students ahead of the launch.

“As a former science educator, I understand the importance of sparking curiosity and inspiring young minds to explore their world,” said First Lady Pamela Northam. “I am so pleased to be able to watch this innovative STEM initiative launch the dreams—and possibly careers—of students across the country thanks to the amazing team at Wallops.”

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (Virginia Space), in partnership with Northrop Grumman, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and Twiggs Space Lab, created the ThinSat Program, a low-cost initiative to increase student engagement in STEM-related fields. Through this program, students in grades 4-12, as well as university-level students, have developed satellite hardware, tested sensor components with low and high-altitude balloon flights, analyzed data, and as of today, launched an actual payload into space. 

Satellites for the ThinSat NG-15 mission were built by students from more than 50 elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities located in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Princeton University, Salisbury University, and Taylor University, along with Virginia institutions Old Dominion University, George Mason University, and Virginia Tech designed custom payloads for the ThinSat NG-15 mission. Learn more about the ThinSat Program and the custom payloads here

“We are living in such an exciting time for space exploration,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “Today, we launched an Antares rocket carrying a spacecraft that bears the name of NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson, witnessed the ingenuity of students, and marked the fifteenth resupply mission to the International Space Station.” 

“The Virginia Space ThinSats mission for NG-15 was especially challenging for schools during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Virginia Space CEO and Executive Director Dale Nash. “Like the vigilant Virginia Space workforce that has safely continued mission essential work during COVID-19, these students and their instructors persevered, showing tremendous resilience and grace.” 

The Cygnus spacecraft is also carrying critical materials to directly support some of the more than 250 science and research investigations that will occur during future expeditions. The scientific investigations launching on Cygnus are part of commercial and academic payloads across a variety of disciplines, including:

  • Micro-16, a study of muscle strength changes in worms that will help scientists better understand the cause of decreased muscle strength that astronauts experience in microgravity. The findings could support the development of countermeasures to help maintain crew member health and support new therapies to combat the effects of age-related muscle loss on Earth.
  • The European Space Agency Dreams experiment will serve as a technology demonstration of the Dry-EEG Headband in microgravity, while also monitoring astronaut sleep quality during a long duration flight mission.
  • Spaceborne Computer-2 will build off of the success of its first study to explore how commercial off-the-shelf computer systems—those without radiation shielding or other modifications—can advance space exploration by processing data significantly faster in space, speeding scientists’ time-to-insight from months to minutes.
  • The Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing experiment builds upon an earlier project and will examine how microgravity may optimize production of artificial retinas or retinal implants, which could benefit millions of people on Earth who suffer from retinal degenerative diseases.
  • The International Space Station serves as a testing ground for technologies that NASA plans to use on future Artemis missions to the Moon. The Artemis HERA on Space Station (A-HoSS) is a radiation detection system developed for the Orion spacecraft and certified for use on NASA’s Artemis II mission. The investigation will evaluate this hardware in the space radiation environment prior to the Artemis II mission, the first mission on which astronauts will orbit the Moon in the spacecraft.
  • Previous research has shown that microgravity produces larger, clearer protein crystals that can be used to help better understand diseases and identify treatments. Real-Time Protein Crystal Growth-2 will test new ways of growing protein crystals in space and allow scientists to make real-time adjustments to the growth conditions throughout the duration of the experiment.
  • The Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) is a critical element of regenerative life support technology that provides clean air and water to the space station crew. The Exploration ECLSS: Brine Processor System investigation will upgrade to the space station’s life support system to help provide more clean air and water.

This will be the fourth mission under Northrop Grumman’s Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2) contract with NASA, for which the company will fly a minimum of eight missions to the International Space Station through 2024. Launch pad modifications in 2019 made it possible to accommodate the loading of time-sensitive experiments into the Cygnus spacecraft up to 24 hours before liftoff, shortening the previous four-day pre-loading requirement. This is the fourth official mission to use this late loading capability, which has made the facility eligible for missions that include life science investigations in the payload.

Last year marked 25 years since the Virginia General Assembly established Virginia Space Flight as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the 75th anniversary of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Wallops Flight Facility. Twenty successful missions have launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. 

Virginia Space owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), the MARS Payload Processing Facility, and the MARS Unmanned Systems Test Range. The facilities are all located on the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where their mission is to provide low-cost, safe, reliable, and “schedule-friendly” access to space and secure facilities for testing unmanned vehicles for integration into the National Air Space. Virginia continues to play a key role in national security and assured access to space, as one of only four states in the United States hosting a spaceport licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch spacecraft into orbit or on interplanetary trajectories. For more information, visit vaspace.org.

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